Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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When liberalism met democracy

By the time of the rise of mass politics in the later 19th century the ground had been prepared for the crystallization of liberalism in its political forms. Equipped with those beliefs, liberals were understandably attracted to, and derived strength from, the early 19th century theories of rational progress gleaned from the enlightenment. But their fate was also intertwined with the emergence of a large Liberal party on the British political scene. Aristocratic landowners within the political faction known as the Whigs had been strongly aligned with Parliament, rather than the monarchy, and began to be seen as a force for progress. The moderate political reforms they supported slowly enabled middle class manufacturers and entrepreneurs to enter the political arena. The latter fought for the release of trade and industry from economic fetters and, being innovators, were far more amenable to change than the landed aristocracy. The ideas supported by those commercial and urban powers began to be put into practice. Notable radical reformers such as Richard Cobden (1804–65) and John Bright (1811–89) rose to prominence amongst them, preaching the gospel of free trade and internationalism. The Liberal party came into being as a combination of those groups and became a national party.

One of the chief political impacts of British liberalism was to press for the extension of the franchise through two major Reform Acts, in 1832 and in 1867. Both were cautious steps on the way to democracy, increasing the number of those entitled to vote to male householders. Women, however, had to wait until the early 20th century for the right to vote, agitating for political liberty and equality through the suffragette movement. That right was conceded only following their great contributions to the First World War effort. The Reform Acts also gradually enfranchised those who had previously been debarred from voting for religious reasons, and the Third Reform Act of 1884–5 redistributed electoral constituencies more fairly and equally, reflecting demographic shifts of population. Another political impact was to pass legislation that reduced controls on economic activity. It resulted in the Liberal party, and liberalism more generally, being associated with free trade and laissez-faire, even though governmental regulation and intervention still continued to a lesser degree and proper laissez-faire was always more mythical than real.

A third political impact was the introduction, from the 1880s, of a specific political programme put to the electorate, rather than just fighting elections on one issue at a time or as a personal contest between two candidates. The Liberal party helped to modernize politics by transforming parties from being exclusively machines for winning votes and putting people into office into ideological disseminators of policies whose role was also to wage battles of ideas. The influence of liberalism as a political theory was immensely assisted by the Liberal party forming governments for extensive periods between the middle of the 19th century and the First World War.

It was only by the mid 19th century that liberalism and democracy began to consolidate what now seems to be an inseparable relationship. Up to that point liberals were wary about what they believed were two dangerous features of democracy. First, democracy could develop into a tyranny of the majority, thus merely replacing the older despotisms of minorities wielded by kings and aristocrats with newer ones. Second, given the abysmal state of education of the population at large, it could perpetuate mediocre rule. That was one reason why liberals were passionate advocates of compulsory education for children: an enlightened democracy required the ability to make good and informed choices. It was only much later—as noted in —that the term ‘liberal-democracy’ came into circulation, with its message that democracy was not just about winning elections and majoritarian rule, but about how that rule was exercised between elections. Liberals, in turn, learnt to accept that their pursuit of liberty and the discovery of the individual had to operate within the framework of an inclusionary political system, even if it ran the risk of including illiberal voices.

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